France's first lady makes French inmate in Mexican jail her cause

Francois Hollande's partner champions a cause by sending box of treats to French woman imprisoned for 60 years

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 10 October, 2012, 4:00am


France's first lady, Valerie Trierweiler, has used diplomatic channels to send presents to a French woman who was jailed for 60 years in Mexico after being convicted of kidnapping.

Books, beauty products and chocolates were sent to Florence Cassez last week, according to Le Parisien newspaper, which said Trierweiler will send a parcel every month until she is freed.

Struggling to find a role in a position that does not formally exist, Trierweiler's choice of cause will find favour in France, where Cassez is widely viewed as a victim of Mexican injustice.

Even the opposition will find it hard to criticise her choice; the former president Nicolas Sarkozy's public support of Cassez triggered a diplomatic spat between France and Mexico.

"It's a precious gesture that Florence much appreciated," said Jean-Luc Romero, president of Cassez's support committee.

"Pressure from the Elysee is important. It shows that France is still behind her."

Cassez, 37, was sentenced to 60 years' jail in 2009 for taking part in kidnappings, associating with criminals and being in possession of illegal weapon. She maintains her innocence.

She was arrested in 2005 with her then boyfriend, Israel Vallarta, the head of a notorious kidnapping gang. The long-running legal battle centres around how police handled the arrest and evidence from kidnap victims who were blindfolded and never saw their captors but claimed to have recognised Cassez's voice.

Sarkozy made Cassez's plight a cause célèbre, regularly telephoning her. But his blistering criticism of the Mexican authorities and decision last year to "dedicate" 12 months of Mexican cultural celebrations in France to Cassez led to the Latin American nation pulling out of the event and a diplomatic crisis.

His Elysee successor, Francois Hollande, who has reportedly spoken to Cassez's parents by telephone "several times", is determined to be more subtle, believing insulting the Mexican legal system will not help free her.

A French diplomat in Mexico said Paris had decided to "go carefully". "Any new attempt at pressure will be very badly seen. We have to tread lightly," the diplomat said.

Cassez's French lawyer, Frank Berton, has called the situation "a massive judicial impasse". In Mexico, where kidnappings by criminal gangs are common, her case elicits little public sympathy and relatives of the kidnap victims have expressed outrage at her "special treatment" and possible release.

Cassez's family and supporters hope that Hollande will raise Cassez's case when he receives Mexico's new president Enrique Pena Nieto, who will be taking up office in December, at the Elysee next week.